A good judge of character

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 November, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 November, 2004, 12:00am

In some countries, judges are in the pockets of politicians or big business, or can be bought. In others, they accept directives from the government or political parties on how to rule in sensitive cases.

In Hong Kong, we are lucky in that we have a judiciary that is respected, independent and, just as important, widely perceived as being independent. Certainly, we are envied by many of our neighbours in that regard.

And now, to ensure that judicial behaviour continues to be characterised by propriety and rectitude, the judiciary has published a guide to judicial conduct. For the sake of transparency, it has been made available to the public.

This appears to be an idea whose time has come. In recent years, a number of countries, including Australia, Canada and New Zealand, have adopted similar guidelines. In fact, the Bangalore Principles of Judicial Conduct, which is meant to be an international code of judicial conduct, was prepared under United Nations auspices, and published recently.

The principles emphasise the independence, impartiality and integrity of judges, as well as the need for them to behave with propriety in all activities.

Not surprisingly, the same qualities are highlighted in the Hong Kong guide. We have, by and large, been fortunate with our judges, because there are no juicy scandals that come to mind. The worst misbehaviour I can think of is the penchant of one former senior judge to imbibe during lunch so that, in the afternoon sessions, he was perhaps not as sober as the proverbial judge. Other than that, there was the case of a judge caught reading a novel while presiding over a case. He was quickly packed off to New Zealand, or some such place.

There may have been one or two cases of judges nodding off while counsel droned on, but, really, our judges have been exemplary, both on and off the bench.

This probably means that it is a good time to come out with a guide to judicial conduct. It is far better to have guidelines in place early than to have a situation where judges are unsure of how they ought to behave. Throughout the 35-page booklet, judges are asked to imagine whether, in the eyes of a reasonable, fair-minded and well-informed member of the community, their conduct would be likely to call his or her integrity into question or to diminish respect for him or her as a judge. This imaginary member of the community passes judgment on all kinds of judicial conduct, including whether it is appropriate to engage in occasional gambling. (The answer is yes).

The guide is full of helpful hints, including when not to use judicial stationary (when making a complaint) and when it is all right to give legal advice (never). It is all right for a judge to serve on the management committee of an Owners' Corporation, but definitely not to be the director of a commercial enterprise.

With electoral politics now intruding into all spheres of life, the guide warns judges not to become involved with political organisations or activities. However, even judges are free to vote for the candidate of their choice.

The guide is silent on the acceptance of gifts, apparently because this falls under the Prevention of Bribery Ordinance. However, some common sense observations would have been welcome. Currently, some judges feel that they cannot even retain souvenirs they receive after attending public functions. But if a plaque has a judge's name inscribed on it, there seems little likelihood that he will sell it for profit.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator